Recovery Begins On Opening Day

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.2, February 2006,

A year ago, few Americans had heard of Slidell, La. But when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in August, the town of 25,000 people just 30 miles from New Orleans was one of the hardest-hit areas, and news media from around the world reported its devastation. Five months later, as Slidell continues to cope and rebuild, the return of high school baseball is bringing welcome comfort to student-athletes and residents of this grief-stricken community.

“Almost every player on my team received some type of damage to their home. Most of them are now living either in a shell of a house or in a FEMA trailer, or they’ve moved in with relatives,” says Bill Morris, Head Coach at Salmen High School, which had a pre-Katrina enrollment of 1,100 students but now has only about 550. Salmen was submerged to the roof when the hurricane hit, and most of the school building was a total loss.

In the fall, Salmen students attended class from 1:15 p.m. to 6:55 p.m. at nearby Northshore High School, whose own students were in class from 6:55 a.m. to 12:37 p.m. In mid-January, Salmen took over a former junior high whose students had begun sharing an enrollment-depleted elementary school. Like the return of school, the return of baseball has given student-athletes some sense that life goes on despite everything they’ve endured.

“Of course, the athletes know things aren’t back to ‘normal,’” Morris says. “But getting back to lifting weights and starting batting practice and just being with their teammates again, even if it’s not at our place, gives them some feeling that things are returning to the way they were.

“It was always good therapy, coming to practice,” he adds. “When you’re lifting weights or practicing, you forget everything else except what you’re doing right then and there.”

Rick Mauldin, Head Coach of Northshore’s team, says his athletes have enjoyed similar benefits from getting back into the baseball routine. “In the first couple weeks of school, you could see so much pain and anxiety on the kids’ faces,” he says. “We started working out right away, and once our conditioning program got going and the players were together again, you could see them slowly getting their breath back and starting to feel better.”

Naturally, preparing for this season involved some unique challenges for both coaches, not the least of which was scheduling. With a restricted travel budget, Northshore scheduled games against some local teams outside its 5A class. Salmen, meanwhile, is playing all away games, filling holes in other teams’ schedules created by opponents whose baseball programs—or entire schools—are no longer operational.

Facilities posed another big challenge. Northshore’s field survived the hurricane, but its recently installed $25,000 scoreboard, new batting cage, and dugout roofs did not. While the team can do without those things for now, some immediate repairs, such as fence straightening, were necessary before the start of the season. “We had been talking about a number of building projects, including a new locker room, a new equipment shed, and lights for the field, and all that’s on the back burner now,” Mauldin says. Also, with shared weightroom facilities, lifting and conditioning sessions for both teams have been held while the other’s classes are in session or in the evening after the school day.

Hardships aside, for both coaches, the experience of sharing a home has come with its own rewards. Morris and Mauldin speak highly of each other’s willingness to share and to accommodate student-athletes’ needs, and they see the arrangement as a prime example of how people can work together to overcome adversity. They have benefited from outside generosity as well—one sporting goods company that heard about the two schools’ situation donated several thousand dollars worth of equipment to help the programs get back on their feet.

As the season gets into full swing, Mauldin suspects that a few surprises may still be in store for his team. Since so many high school students were displaced by Katrina, he says many top baseball players are now at new schools, which means tough roster decisions for some area coaches. “I know coaches who had kids who’d been loyal to them for a long time, and suddenly here were three new kids from another school who might take their spots,” Mauldin explains. “Some coaches told those kids they’ve already got their teams picked—I don’t know if I could do that. How can you tell a kid who is going to your school now because his house was blown totally off its foundation that you won’t give him a chance to play?”

While Mauldin’s team wasn’t put in that situation, he feels that no matter what decisions he faces as a coach this year, the events of the past several months have given him a new perspective on his job. “Every coach will tell you that winning is very important, but I’ll tell you what, it’s not the most important thing,” he says. “Getting these kids together, getting a uniform on them, and having the parents and the teachers here excited about baseball again, that’s what it’s about. When the umpire says ‘Play ball!’ at our first game, it’s going to be such a wonderful sound.”